One of the things downthetubes contributor Richard Sheaf likes collecting are comics and magazines that may have been rather forgotten about. A few months ago, he spotted a copy of Fleetwings on eBay, an unusual looking item that piqued his interest, as with it was a letter from top British comic creator Dave Gibbons, talking about “Jet Jason”, the strip that he had illustrated for the magazine.
Suitably intrigued, he bid and won the item – and then visited the British Airways archives to find out more about the magazine, and John Freeman probed artist Dave about this perhaps overlooked project, which he worked on in the late 1970s and 80s…
Fleetwings magazine was produced for the Junior Jet Club, which started life as a promotional tool under British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) on 26th March 1957 – and continued after BOAC and British European Airways merged in 1974 to form British Airways.
David Steele, a former member of the Junior Jet Club (one of the founding members of The Bureau, which runs hospitality and events worldwide), notes on LinkedIn that it was started by the BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) on 26th March 1957 and continued into the British Airways era when BOAC and BEA (British European Airways) merged in 1974 to form British Airways, who continued the JJC.
“Young flyers were issued with a Log Book and a JJC badge,” he recalls. “I remember wearing mine with pride, but after many flights as a young person (those were the days!) I seem to have mislaid it…”
The JJC was, in effect, very much a frequent flyer programme – but for youngsters. (Other national airlines operated Junior Clubs – the Dutch airline KLM had their Junior Skipper Club).
“The accompanying Log Book was used to record the dates and mileage of each journey, the aircraft and its registration, your departure city and your arrival destination… the children’s log books would be collected by a member of the cabin crew and they would deliver them to the cockpit to be signed by the captain – it really made flying fun in my young days.”
Before its re-design, posts to the public BOAC Junior Jet Club on Facebook suggest the earlier incarnation of Fleetwings was a rather staid-looking publication, but with a new look that included double page posters as well as the “Jet Jason” strip, the title took on a much more up to date format and look from 1979 onwards. It ran in this form until 1983 for at least twelve issues, perhaps more – British Airways own records of the title are, sadly, incomplete.
(Fleetwings magazine was just one of several JJC collectables, which also included a Captain’s Log book from publisher Piccolo and a very flimsy square shaped record of BA’s jingle “Fly the Flag” exhorting travellers to support the then state-owned airline).
“Jet Jason” was written by Donne Avenell, whose many credits include War Picture Library, “Adam Eterno” for Lion, The Phantom and the newspaper strip Axa, and told the adventures of the square-jawed blond space hero Jet Jason, who operated alongside glamorous, shrewd and intuitive sidekick Stellar, aided by the logical and unemotional robot dog, Digit.
Interviewed about his work on the strip for the Summer 1980 edition of Fleetwings, Dave told feature writer Janet Fealy how much he liked illustrating SF strips as “I can do it all from my imagination and, as long as the machines appear workable and look good, you can do anything you like.
“Whenever I look at a spaceship drawing, I always want to know what the machine looks like inside, where the cabin is and how much room there is.”
Revealing some of his background as a chartered surveyor who never went to art school and his reluctance to draw feet (“They’re boring, they don’t express any emotions”) and crowd scenes, or scenes where two people are just talking, Dave also outlined the way the strip was created.
“Donne sends me a list of the pictures with a description of the story, the captions for the characters and sound effects where necessary. He may suggest angles for the drawings, but I usually make up my own mind – whether to go in for a close-up, for example, or draw someone’s back view.”
“… People always ask if it’s difficult to draw the same faces in each picture but, funnily enough, it isn’t really. They always have clearly distinguished features so that readers can identify them – long blond hair, for example, or a droopy black moustache.
“Most comic strip stories [pages] have seven or eight pictures, but ‘Jet Jason’ has 12 which are also in colour, so it takes me two to three days to complete a whole story, I do it in pencil first, then in ink and finally in colour.”
“I produced the strip through Bardon Press Features, via my agent Barry Coker,” Dave Gibbons, who both drew and lettered the strip, recalls today. “The brief was to come up with a one-page SF comic strip.”
Previously, Bardon had produced the Nigerian superhero Powerman for Pikin Publications between 1975 and 1977, a title aimed at promoting literacy, written by Donne Avenell and Norman Worker (whose credits also include The Phantom) with Dave and Brian Bolland providing art on alternate issues.
“Donne was one of Barry’s friends at Fleetway, he knew him from his days working on staff” Dave notes. “He worked on editorial there, but also did a lot of freelance scripting, including some of the Powerman strip that myself and Brian Bolland did.
“He was prolific, he wrote a lot of War Picture Library stuff (he’d seen action in World War Two), a very pleasant chap, dressed in a sports jacket, check shirt, tie… the typical sort of ex-forces guy of which there seemed to be a lot at Fleetway at that time.”
While “Jet Jason” is some of his earliest work, created after his stints on Doctor Who Weekly and 2000AD, Dave, currently working on his autobiography and reassessing many of his old strips, proved keen to talk about this near-forgotten strip, and certainly doesn’t want it consigned to history.
As for the space hero’s origins, “Jet Jason is a name that I used for several characters that I created when I was a kid,” Dave reveals, “my amateurish attempts at doing Dan Dare or Rick Random, so the name looms quite large in my maths rough book comic strips!
“It was set in a Dan Dare-ish, fairly benevolent universe, nothing too scary or graphic – quite a comfortable family entertainment.
“I remember was that we were asked not to have any spaceships crashing or blowing up,” he adds. “[British Airways] didn’t want to put the club members off flying…”
Although the contemporary note Richard now owns from Dave about the strip notes he found some of its Demand’s constraining, “looking at the strip now I can see I’ve broken it out into an exciting layout with stuff coming out of the panel,” the artist notes, “with a lot of dead area to emphasise the details and so on.
“It was all hand-coloured by me. I’d been very impressed by what Frank Bellamy had done – using inks, just using three inks, ultramarine, scarlet and yellow.”
(Dave cites Bellamy as one of his early influences in his recently-published book written with Tim Pilcher, How Comics Work).
Dave’s work on “Jet Jason” came to an end in 1983, he thinks, but he’s not sure if there are other episodes of the strip beyond the twelve we’ve located after research assisted by a visit to the British Airways archives. (If readers know of more, do let us know!)
“By 1984 I was quite happily working for US,” Dave says. “‘Jet Jason’ was only one page but it was full colour and lots of panels – probably half a weeks’ work – so I wouldn’t have had time to do this.”
The end of “Jet Jason” seems to come at around the same time as the end of the JJC. The JJC was closed on 29th March 1984 (after 27 years) and was replaced by ‘Flightrider’, along with an enrolment fee of £1 and an annual membership £2.50.
It was described as “the new club for the youngsters of today”, and was launched on 29th March 1984, to “… reflect the needs of the new British Airways and of young people today”. It was aimed at all children under 16 with an interest in flying. You could get application forms on BA aircraft and at sales shops, and travel agents were “invited to hold a supply on request”.
New members got a copy of Flightrider magazine, a metal Flightrider badge, plastic membership card and a log book. As with the JJC, they issued mileage certificates for 25, 50, 75 and 100,000 miles on British Airways.
“Flightrider didn’t last long (no doubt the fees?),” David Steele notes, “and was ultimately replaced in 1988 with ‘Skyflyers’ which was essentially a re-branding of ‘Unaccompanied Minors’ and seemed to be more about keeping children entertained than fostering an interest in aviation.”
Sadly for those who remember the club with much fondness, in 2016
Intriguingly, there’s some anecdotal evidence to suggest that Fleetwings might not have been the only British Airways title for young flyers. Over on Bear Alley, back in 2009, Steve Holland reported one of his readers, Vidya Heble, recalled a more youthfully-skewed magazine given out by British Airways air stewards in the 1970s which had The Magic Roundabout on the cover and “Num Num and his Magic Family” on the centre spread.
“Or is Vidya perhaps remembering back issues of Playhour,” Steve then wondered, “as that [comic] certainly featured both Num Num in the centre and had ‘The Magic Roundabout’ on the cover in the 1970s.”
Giving out comics to children was an established practice dating at least as far as artist Oliver Frey’s arrival from Switzerland into the UK with his family. As we recently noted, he recalls being handed a copy of Eagle, an act that ensured a lifelong admiration for “Dan Dare”.
Who knows who “Jet Jason” inspired among later British Airways junior flyers?
• If you remember Fleetwings and can tell us if other “Jet Jason” strips were published (and can supply better copies of the colour episodes) besides those featured here and the twelve issues noted below , please let us know!
Jet Jason: A Check List
• As far as we’re aware, Jet Jason appeared in the following issues of Fleetwings
Episode One – July 1979
Episode Two – October/November 1979
Episode Three – Spring 1980
Episode Seven – Summer 1981
Episode Four – Summer 1980
Episode Five – Winter 1980
Episode Six – Spring 1981
Episode Eight – Winter 1981
Episode Nine – Spring 1982
Episode 10 – Summer 1982
Episode 11 – Winter 1982
Episode 12 – Spring 1983
Web Links – Jet Jason Creators
Born in 1925 Donne Avenell, who died in November 1996, was a comics writer who began his career as an editor with Amalgamated Press (later IPC), working on Radio Fun before serving in the Navy during World War Two. Returning to AP after the war, he edited a magazine about architecture for six years while also writing radio dramas and romance stories under a number of pseudonyms including Alec Ashton and Charles King.
In the 1950s he began writing for War Picture Library and, in the 1960s, for the newspaper strip Tiffany Jones published in the Daily Sketch. The series centred on a young woman who travelled to London to become a fashion model
During his career he would write strips for Lion, including “Adam Eterno”, “The Spider”, “The Phantom Viking”, “Oddball Oates” and “Dr Mesmer’s Revenge”.
In 1975, he began co-writing the Nigerian superhero comic Powerman with Norman Worker, and from 1978 to 1986 he wrote the newspaper strip Axa, drawn by Enrique Romero, for The Sun.
From 1977 to 1996 he worked for the Swedish publisher Semic, writing strips including The Phantom, Buffalo Bill and Helgonet (The Saint), and in the early 1980s he worked for Egmont on various Disney stories. He also wrote the official comic adaptation of the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, drawn by John M. Burns, and also collaborated with Burns on the newspaper strip Eartha, which ran in the Sunday supplement of the Express newspaper.
In the mid 1980s he created the strip Django and Angel for the Swedish Agent X9 magazine. He also wrote for television, including episodes of The Saint, and wrote two novels about The Saint in 1979 and 1980.
According to The Fleetway Picture Library Index Volume One, Donne wrote the following issues of War Picture Library:
5, 8, 19, 23, 27, 28, 35, 37, 38, 41, 43, 47, 58, 61, 68, 86, 89, 92, 97, 111, 115, 158, 162, 168, 170, 178, 180, 188, 207, 216, 242, 249 and 296
• Some of Donne’s Axa work is available through amazon.co.uk (using this ink helps support downthetubes)
Dave Gibbons is a comics artist, writer and sometimes letterer. Britain’s first Comics Laureate, he is, perhaps, best known for his collaborations with writer Alan Moore, which include DC Comics Watchmen and the Superman story “For the Man Who Has Everything”, but he has had a long and successful career in comics in his own right, first working for DC Thomson and IPC – drawing, for example, a huge amount of strips for 2000AD from its first issue in 1977. He was the lead artist on Doctor Who Weekly/Monthly, drawing the main comic strip for most of the issues from Issue One until Issue 69.
For the US market, his work includes his black and white graphic novel The Originals, published by Vertigo, a story is set in the near future, but drawing heavily on the imagery of the Mods and Rockers of the 1960s; DC Comics six-issue limited series The Rann/Thanagar War; and Green Lantern Corps: Recharge; and The Secret Service: Kingsman.
• You can follow Dave Gibbons on Twitter @davegibbons90
Junior Jet Club Web Links
• The British Airways Heritage Collection has existed since the formation of British Airways. It was formed to preserve the records and artefacts of British Airways predecessor companies BOAC, BEA, BSAA and the pre-war Imperial Airways and British Airways Ltd.
The collection comprises of an extensive document archive recording the formation, development and operations of the British Airways and its predecessor companies as well as memorabilia and artefacts
Fleetwings © British Airways | Follow Richard Sheaf’s own Boys Adventure Comics Blog at boysadventurecomics.blogspot.co.uk